It’s A Kind of Magic: An Interview with South African Band ISO

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In a never-ending battle to either fit in or go against the grain people often forget to just be themselves. Their ability to do the latter is precisely what makes ISO so refreshing.

They do what they love and give it all they’ve got with a sincerity that distinguishes them as a band. I could carry on, but for the sake of brevity I’ll list three things which encapsulate them and their work: passion, performance and professionalism. Formed in 2006, Marko Benini (drums and backing vocals), Richard Brokensha (lead vocals and guitar), Alex Parker (keyboards and backing vocals) and Franco Schoeman (bass and backing vocals) have taken a journey together which has included touring across South Africa, performing all over Germany with Marius Müller-Westernhagen, releasing four albums and adjusting their name. So far.

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There is a lot more to come, all in pursuit of being that rare breed of profession in South Africa: full-time musicians. This is one of the things they tell me sets them apart as a band in South Africa. “This is our full-time thing,” Alex says. “We stem from an improvisational point of view,” Marko explains. “That’s how we started [and] we’re a band that likes to keep up with the times…When we started this prog rock thing we realised we needed to do the prog thing too, that is: progress,” he elaborates, before Franco chimes in “We used to have custom-built confetti cannons.”

He is, of course, referring to the cannons that were part of R100 000 worth of gear that was stolen along with their trailer, at this year’s Oppikoppi. Crime is of no surprise to anyone in South Africa. The problem is that it’s of no consequence either. How anyone could abscond with an entire trailer from a purportedly secure area reserved only for artists at a music festival is a question no one has an answer to. The theft and its aftermath were a harsh reminder of our reality. “We live in a country where crime is socially acceptable,” Alex says. “It comes with the territory of living here. On reflection, that’s what you take out of it.”

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“We don’t deal with crime, we just build higher walls,” Marko adds before Alex continues. “The response was that it could have been stolen outside Assembly or in Hatfield…What about female artists? If that’s the attitude, then what’s to stop them from getting raped? It’s kind of what I expected them to say, but some kind of remuneration or formal apology would have been nice. Even if they didn’t take responsibility and it was a security fault, then the security company should take responsibility.” Instead the band has rallied support from fans as well as the likes of Music Connection in Johannesburg, citing Anton Stella in particular (“He’s [a saviour] in the music industry”). What they did take from the unfortunate event was the realisation that despite being robbed of their livelihood, no one could take away their talent. They continued with all their scheduled shows, for “the show must go on.”

“We realised that no one can take anything away from you, because no one can take what’s us,” Franco says. The “us” he is referring to is a group of technically proficient musicians and a powerful live act. If there was a way to capture the energy they generate on stage, it would be burning holes on this virtual page. It is a big part of what draws their audience, as Marko certifies, “It’s the live show…We strive to be the best live act.” The magic lies in the passion which drives each show and the pure engagement of the moment, as well as the audience. “We’re very comfortable on stage,” Franco says. “Richard’s voice has a big thing to do with it,” Alex adds. “He has an enthralling stage personality. You’d be surprised if he spoke here, but on stage he’s a monster.” Richard, certainly an enigma offstage, has an intense presence on stage buoyed by an energy which is not of this world.

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Influenced as they are by classical and jazz music, I decided to have a little fun and ask them which deceased musicians they would resurrect to play with for one night. The enthusiasm with which they tackle the question displays not only their knowledge and love of music, but a playful sense of humour as well. Franco leaps in with Beethoven, Richard with John Lennon, Alex with Tchaikovsky and Marko can’t decide between Lennon and Debussy. “Debussy would have gotten depressed after a while,” Alex offers. “If I can cheat Debussy and Lennon together,” Marko decides. “And get them to do a dub step thing.” Rodriguez’ name comes up, but is eliminated when they remember that they’re meant to be resurrecting the dead.

Prompting a jazz rendition of the question instead they pour out a compendium of names from Chet Baker and Bill Evans to Stan Kenton and Art Tatum, and eventually segue into other genres bringing up Bob Marley but “not Kurt Cobain,” Franco says adamantly. “I would go back in time and erase him…What about Lucky Dube?” The mention of the legendary muso prompts Marko to point out that he wishes more people would ask them about the South African artists they like. Obviously I ask them and they launch into a discussion about South(ern) African music, bringing up a host of names including Jonathan Crossley, Tananas, Shane Cooper, Das Kapital, Carlo Mombelli, Tumi (Molekane) and Selaelo Selota. “We really love our local artists,” Franco says.

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Their own sound is something quite rare, more so for the way it has evolved over the seven years they have been together. “Most bands I listen to have changed over the years,” Marko says. “If you look at Kings of Leon they used to sound like they belonged in a Quentin Tarantino movie and now they’ve evolved into this stadium sound…We’re not a heritage band. Like Iron Maiden, they’re a heritage band. They’re like McDonalds.” There is protestation at this comparison. “Maybe more like KFC,” Richard offers. “I’m trying to say that it’s always going to be the same,” Marko says. To further illustrate his point, he brings up Radiohead – even if they’re not all fans –“Radiohead is not a heritage band. Nothing is the same ever. That’s enticing for me.” The evolution of their sound also brought about not so much a shift as an increase in their audience and fan base. One of the most evident developments is the spike in female fans. “Largely because we’re not particularly testosterone-driven in terms of vocals.”

Even though I’ve seen a fair amount of girls squeal as the band arrives on stage or teeter on the brink of fainting when Richard grabs their hands and sings to them, ISO are progressive in ways that cover more than just their sound. They eschew stereotypes (“we’re not grimy with tattoos all over our faces”) and subvert the scene all the more by choosing not to objectify females with their music. “Everything we sing about is very metaphorical,” Franco says. “We created our own sound, like Marko said, we’re not a heritage band…We’ve tested out audience. We’ve changed our sound quite drastically. The loyal ones are willing to see the change happen.”

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“Right now we’re between what we’ve been experimenting with and what we used to do,” Marko adds. At times the progress in their own music mirrors what is happening with music in South Africa and Marko testifies that “radio is still the biggest platform for music. As we’ve become what we are now, radio has changed. Look at 5FM, they’re playing a lot more local music. People are localising a lot, especially in Gauteng.”

“It was either really stupid or really gutsy,” Alex says of the way they’ve chosen to evolve and brand themselves, particularly working in an industry they call “Satan’s playground.” The “digital revolution” has impacted various art forms in the 21st century, music featuring prominently amongst them. “People have gone from sitting quietly and appreciating it to people wanting to feel it,” Franco says, bringing to mind a lament from Jeremy Clarkson about how listening to an album before “was a job in itself, whereas this e-music is acoustic wallpaper, something you have on while you do something else.”

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“Think about this,” Marko say, referencing TED Talks (as in “Technology, Entertainment and Design” not the teddy bear, as I cheerfully blurt out, courtesy of Seth MacFarlane). “When the orchestra finishes it’s done. In the beginning it was bourgeois and then theatres started opening and the ‘peasants’ could listen to it. Then the revolution of recording came along. It came to be that anyone could listen to music. And now anyone can make music. My 8-yeard-old son is making dub step.” But opening the public space the way technology has, allows this kind of change.“Trent Reznor did this thing in 2000 where he said ‘do want you want in my music’ [asking fans to remix his work]…[while] Imogen Heap asks her fans their opinion while writing.” Even ISO held a competition inviting others to remix their song Heaven.“ These days there’s not a lot of separation between the audience and the artist,” Alex says. “It’s like a democratisation of the entire process.” They predict “the future is making music on the fly,” and,as Marko points out, “everyone gets their two cents’”, adding reflectively “I don’t know if it’s right or wrong.”

For a band with this much energy, it’s not surprising to find out that they’re not resting on their laurels and the remaining months of 2013 will see them play the Pink Girl Fest in Magaliesburg, the SEXPO in Johannesburg and support Seether in South Africa – ending the year in Zimbabwe at the Vic Falls Carnival. This year has also seen them become the first South African band to release an iBook, containing all the band’s products and material to date, and which they will be promoting at various iStores.

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What is very clear is the pride they take in their work, bolstered by a confidence admirable in a band whose members are so young; yet there is never a shred of ego on display, whether on stage or off. I enjoyed talking to ISO as much as I enjoy their music and their shows.You know those moments when you look forward to something so much that you raise your expectations too high and end up being disappointed? Meeting ISO was not like that at all. It brought to mind alchemists who tried to turn lead into gold in the Middle Ages. While alchemists may have had dubious luck with this venture, ISO has found a figurative solution. They are a band so committed to what they do that even when someone steals all their gear, they just keep calm and carry on playing.

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